Sieghart…or jumping through hoops!

Well, another day and another library consultation over. Given the long list of reviews and reports into libraries over the past few years it’s hard not to be cynical and see the current one as the usual hoop exercise…as in jumping through!

That said, it would be foolish not to make a submission on the extremely unlikely chance that this is the one that will make the difference…so I’ve duly added my tuppence worth.

Feedback was asked around three questions:

  1. What are the core principles of a public library service into the future?
  2. Is the current delivery of the public library service the most comprehensive and efficient?
  3. What is the role of community libraries in the delivery of a library offer?

The fact that the report has been commissioned by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Department for Communities and Local Government should give pause and makes me wonder what the underlying motivation is. Or to put it another way: is this the usual political machination by the government to undermine the public library service?

The scope of the review is to ‘…produce an independent report considering the current structure and role of public libraries, including community libraries, in England as well as identifying any opportunities for future delivery.’

Colour me suspicious but question two immediately raised a certain amount of disquiet. Although I have concerns about the efficaciousness of the principle of ‘comprehensive and efficient’, for many it is all that stands between library services and widespread closures (cue Lincolnshire).

Then there’s question three about community libraries. Many campaigners and observers have already pointed out that the term means different things to different people. So to begin with a clear explanation of the term is required to ensure a shared understanding and frame of reference.

However, I think it’s safe to assume that in this context the term refers to a library that is either run by volunteers/community group outside of local authority control, or operated by volunteers with a lesser or greater degree of support from the local authority.

The fact that the review blithely refers to such libraries indicates that the panel implicitly accept them as a viable model of service provision. Again, this is a reflection of current government philosophy rather than a genuine invitation to discuss the principle of so called community libraries.

Now, the report should be seen in a wider context including the fact that ACE has recently commissioned Locality to ‘…explore existing good practice and assess the further potential to enable enterprise amongst library service providers’ – for ‘library service providers’ read ‘community libraries’.

So it will be interesting to see if Sieghart does indeed produce an independent narrative or if, as I suspect, this is just another fudged report exploited by the DCMS to justify and extend the use of volunteer run libraries.

Education, education, education: why libraries should love learning

Two interesting articles caught my attention this week. The first by philosopher Roger Scruton in which he argues that education should not be left to teachers and the state and advocates that a variety of individuals and bodies should contribute to the overall learning and education of children.  The second shows the worrying reading divide in England and the negative socio-economic impact this can have for non-readers.

This raises the issue of what the educational role of libraries should be, not simply as an abstract question but a real and fundamental challenge as to who we are and what we do, particularly around the principles of widening access, opportunity, and helping disadvantaged individuals and communities.

Traditionally libraries have always prided themselves on providing access to knowledge and learning but slowly – exacerbated by the current austerity programme – this principle is being eroded.

Many decision makers see libraries as subordinate to a wider leisure agenda, with reading viewed as a ‘past-time’ for the middle-classes rather than an essential skill for all, while nationally ACE continuously tries to push an arts agenda onto libraries. Worse still, many see libraries as little more than book-swaps, needing limited professional input, or as a shop front for other council services.

This is not the evolution of the library movement towards modernity, as some would have it, but rather a degradation of its original purpose, which is the opportunity of learning for all.

For me, the true mission of the library movement lies in promoting education in its broadest sense through the provision of a dynamic learning environment. This should be the guiding principle of all we do.

In a constantly changing social, economic and technological environment libraries are ideally placed to alleviate the effects of deprivation and disadvantage by acting as hubs for community learning and helping individuals update skills and knowledge. Equally, learning can alleviate the sense of exclusion and isolation that many young people feel about society, feelings that played a large part in the riots of 2011.

Rather than endeavouring to mould us into their image ACE should recognise that libraries have a different character and remit and should manage and provide funding accordingly. Instead of bids based around art projects they should support educational initiatives and partnerships, particularly around the universal offers. They should also encourage more development between public libraries, schools, colleges and universities, of which the Hive in Worcester is a shining example.  Similar ideas are explored in The university of the public library.

Libraries can be many things delivering many different types of opportunity  – see 10 ideas to reinvent the library by Francesca Wakefield – they can support business and innovation, job information, health information, digital inclusion, and social cohesion, but most of all – reflecting both their founding principles and core mission – they should remain places of knowledge, learning, and education.


Update: Interesting post from Ian Clark questioning the results of the reading divide survey.

Heads in the Cloud

It’s obvious that in a society driven by neoliberalism (to a lesser or greater degree) one of the problems with Cilip is that it has no competition  and as we all know it’s competition that drives up standards (well at least according to customary government dogma).

Ever since taking over…sorry, merging with the IIS Cilip has lacked any comparator body to challenge its dominance of the library &  information field. Consequently, no competition equals plenty of naval gazing.

Aslib, which styles itself the Association for Information Management could have been a contender (On The Waterfront anybody!) and given Cilip’s claim to represent the library, information, and knowledge sectors (Uncle Tom Cobley and all!) there should have been serious rivalry to attract the same professional segments. Unfortunately, this hasn’t happened and Aslib seems content for its brand to be known for little more than training courses.

That leaves us with no alternative professional body to turn to. Obviously, for some librarians, joining organisations like the ILM or CMI (management) or the BCS (IT) or even for academic colleagues a teaching body is a useful complement but not replacement for Cilip. That said, we know that Cilip’s membership has fallen dramatically over the years so it appears many colleagues are quite happy not to belong at all.

Nowadays, when so much can be accomplished online and membership engagement is so low one question is why do we need the trappings of a professional body at all, including an expensive London based office?

Campaigning sites such as We Own It and 38 Degrees demonstrate how effective online networking can be. In the future (at least for public libraries) less emphasis will be placed on technical skills and formal qualifications and more on the ability to work comfortably within continuously changing landscapes, both physical and virtual, and engaging and collaborating across all sectors and organisations. A professional body will be one that facilitates networking opportunities and development rather than one based on a membership level/qualification hierarchy.

Although we already have some admirable campaigning sites; The Library Campaign, Speak up for Libraries, and the excellent Public Library News, none of these are specifically set up to engage librarians about professional issues. That said they are still more relevant, informative and a better advocate for public libraries than Cilip!

So perhaps what is needed is a genuine online community, a loose, informal network of professionals, library staff, and associated parties coming together to deal with issues of interest.

To be even more heretical, in a time of social media, web based networks, unconferences, and single issue campaigns (library closures a case in point) do we need a traditional professional organisation at all or would it be better replaced with an ever evolving online library community?